Mechanical engineering professors Douglas G. Bohl and Brian Helenbrook will use computer models and wind tunnels to speed up the sled and reduce drag.
Bohl got involved after his now 13-year-old son tried out for the USA Luge development team last year. While traveling to the luge track in Lake Placid with his son each weekend, Bohl met sports programs director and two-time Olympic medalist Mark Grimmette, at which point he proposed the idea for a research project to reduce aerodynamic drag on the sled.
“We’ve wanted to do this for years, but did not have the resources,” says Gordy Sheer, director of marketing and sponsorship for USA Luge. “We also needed someone who understood the sport and its nuances.”
“As athletes become better, equipment plays a bigger part in winning,” says Bohl. “I don’t know if there’s a ‘silver bullet,’ but I think we can make a difference.”
Luge is the only Winter Olympics gravity sport measured to 1/1000th of a second, so very small changes in drag can greatly affect times.
“We’ll build a computer model of a sled with a slider on it, compute the drag, examine the flow going past and finally put an actual sled in Clarkson’s wind tunnel to make drag measurements,” says Bohl.
Eventually, a sled will be built based on the Clarkson team’s research and taken to the low speed (sub-sonic) wind tunnel at the San Diego Air and Space Technology Center where USA Luge sleds are tested.
“We’re looking for evolution, not revolution,” says Sheer. “The Clarkson team will be looking at the aerodynamic shell and aerodynamic shape of the sled as a whole.”
Placid Boatworks, a custom canoe shop in Lake Placid, N.Y., builds the pods or shells, which act as a seat for the athletes. The kufens, which are the bridge between the steel runners and the pod, are hand carved from ash and wrapped in fiberglass.
“There is lots of artistry in luge sled design,” says Bohl. “Art will direct you to good solution through natural selection, but basic sled designs haven’t changed in 10 to 15 years. Scientists and engineers might be able to bring some new ideas into play.”
Bohl, Helenbrook and their team of students will receive no monetary compensation for their research.
“We won’t get technical papers or money out of this, but we’re helping the U.S. team,” says Bohl. “That’s a cool benefit of being at a University. It’s a lot of fun to do projects like this and Clarkson’s location near the Adirondacks and Lake Placid gives us the opportunity. We’re really excited.”
Photo: Douglas G. Bohl (right), a Clarkson University engineering professor, discusses luge design with Gordy Sheer, a 1998 Olympic silver medalist in luge and director of marketing and sponsorship for USA Luge.